Words by Genice Phillips
St. John, U.S.V.I. – In the highly anticipated documentary, “Behind the Water,” host and frequent visitor of El Salvador, Fraser Kershaw, explores the power of the human spirit as he, and the people of Latin America, battle the environmental water crisis.
Directed by National Geographic’s Doug Clevenger and musically scored by Brent Kutzle, bass guitarist and cellist of the Grammy award-winning group, OneRepublic, the film frames the reality of inhabitants in the city of San Luis Talpa, El Salavador, who are longing for clean water.
Water pollution is a pervasive and severe problem in many Latin American countries. Studies show that the continent holds some of the most polluted rivers, and is heavily contaminated with bacteria from sewage, parasites and fecal matter. Sadly, millions of people consume this water, which has triggered health issues such as stomach pains, sickness and infection, even much worse.
In a recent interview with Kershaw, he spoke about the purpose of the film and the resilient nature of the residents in the area, who are trying to overcome these obstacles.
“You will see firsthand accounts of people right here in Latin America struggle with access for clean water,” he explains. “The daily efforts are engrained from the moment they wake up. This struggle is the core root to so many other unnecessary problems. It just feels like you’re always behind.”
The crisis is a significant marker for impoverished countries fighting issues of grave concern, lacking adequate sanitation systems and quality drinking water. With the current drought in several Latin American countries (Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, etc.) supply shortages are swelling.
“Some countries down here tend to be without medical aid, and when bad water sources enter the body, dehydration and illness sets in and there is no one to help,” Kershaw says. “It’s still arguably the number one or number two killer in the world.”
Kershaw is no stranger to island life, growing up in the Virgin Islands, St. John, and had a few experiences dealing with insufficient drinking water. In his late teens, he played with the Virgin Islands National Soccer Team. With a small budget and lack of supplies, him and his teammates often practiced without proper jerseys, soccer balls and water coolers to stay hydrated.
“When our team first started training, we each brought our own water bottle or jug from home. But that was really never enough. We naturally climbed our way up coconut trees for electrolytes. This turned into a ritual that was incorporated into our training,” he said. “Some players were too tired to climb the tree. Once you’re up there it takes strength to pull, yank, and swipe at them and hopefully a few extra fall for your teammates.”
Looking back on those memories, Kershaw draw parallels between his time as a soccer player and living in San Luis Talpa.
“Thinking back, if they [my teammates] were all alone, dehydrated, and weak they might be in big trouble as they couldn’t get their hands on the essential life-giving electrolytes from a coconut. The same scenario is true for many families in and around Latin America,” Kershaw explains.
“This is sort of symbolic of the film. The coconut is too high for some of the people to reach. They can imagine it, see it, but can’t reach it. It’s devastating to be so close without a sip of clean water.”
Kershaw’s home life was also similar to some of the Salvadorian people he befriended and assisted, as seen in the documentary. Growing up, the sink in his kitchen was only designated for washing dishes. His drinking water came from an external, 5-gallon tank that he had to purchase separately. To retrieve water, he had to walk several blocks up a steep hill in 100-degree heat. Friends and family that came to visit after being out at sea, would stay at his house, but were without readily available drinking water.
“I was so unhappy with my task of fetching water. When I flew back to the states, my water ritual was out of my daily psyche. I had access to clean water all day, every day.”
Those personal experiences eventually led to a bigger calling, as Kershaw traveled with medical clinics throughout Latin America, after finishing his education. He witnessed all kinds of illnesses that plagued communities, derived from contaminated water and hygiene.
“I could not watch the same pill provide a temporary band-aid to the problems. I took a break for a year and shadowed the water technician himself, California’s Mr. Philip DeRose. He helped me turn wine into water.”
It wasn’t exactly a Biblical miracle, but with the use of a few tools, large buckets, jugs and inexpensive water filter systems in place, things started to take a positive turn in San Luis Talpa. More specifically, the main school in the city, which holds approximately 335 students. They now have access to clean and safe drinking water.
“In the states we have a choice from thousands of drinks that won’t kill you. Here [In El Salvador] for some, there is one choice and it’s Russian roulette. You have to drink the only option right?” he asks.
“My complaints of fetching a 5 gallon water drum doesn’t even compare to other people in Latin America that are served a glass of death, “ Kershaw says. “And it certainly has no business taking over our lovely communities. I look forward to bringing back another option for the people, and continuing to do so.”
“Behind the Water” features Clevenger’s groundbreaking footage in tune with the classically trained compositions by Kutzle, with the hopes that it will spark a movement to improve the quality of water and health in Latin America, and other places in dire need of clean drinking water.
Catch a sneak peak: www.behindthewater.com. The movie is slated for an early 2015 release.